Palmer’s first design in Europe pairs the best aspects found on the site and the architect’s handiwork
TRALEE, County Kerry, Ireland — When many people think of playing golf in Ireland, they fashion wrong-minded ideas that the courses are all a hundred or more years old, fashioned a century or more ago by the whims of Mother Nature and maintained by grass-eating goats rather than mowers and trained turf tenders.
But in most cases, the courses – especially those on the coast open to the elements of sea, sand and wind – were built using a combination of the best aspects found on the sites and the handiwork of skilled golf course architects with an eye for turning a rough jewel into an unforgettable place to play the Grand Game.
Such is the circumstance with Tralee Golf Club, an outstanding Arnold Palmer-designed venue on Barrow Point, some eight miles from the busy – but not too busy – town of Tralee along the Emerald Isle’s southwest coast.
Tralee Golf Club opened for play in 1984, making it an infant compared to other famous Irish links such as Ballybunion and Lahinch. It was Palmer’s first design in Europe and helped establish the King’s architectural prowess outside the United States. Very little earth was moved in the building of Tralee, a fact reflected in the course’s motto: “Created by God, Designed by Arnold Palmer.”
The original Tralee Golf Club was founded in October 1896. The current course is the fourth to bear the club’s crest of sailing ships, dunes, a castle turret and a rose above crossed golf clubs. Each of the club’s three previous layouts was set in the town of Tralee (in the neighborhoods of Mounthawk, Fenit and Oakpark) and plagued by heavy rainfall, making the courses unplayable in winter.
Though it is close to Tralee, Barrow – as the course at Tralee is called by locals – has a remote feel to it, and the porous sandy soil allowed Palmer and his design consultant and friend, the late Ed Seay, the chance to build a links-style routing that is enjoyable year-round.
Don’t be distracted by the vistas
Par- 72 Tralee Golf Club stretches 6,991 yards from its back set of four tees. The strip of land on Barrow Point upon which the course was arrayed is a mixed geographical bag. Cobbled together out of numerous smaller pieces of farmland, the site not only provides all the ingredients of links golf – hard, fescue greens, undulating fairways and punishing rough – but also some of the perks of its volcanic geography.
It has some very high dunes, wide white-sand beaches, inlets and some of the most eye-popping backdrops of mountains and ocean you will see in all of Ireland. Scenes from the Oscar-winning film “Ryan’s Daughter” were shot on the beach alongside the second hole.
The links features several rollercoaster holes, bunches of treacherous traps, and greens that are undulating but not severely so. There are numerous blind shots; a half-dozen sightlines off the tees that appear to be different than they are and more than one putting surface that breaks uphill or away from the ocean counter everything the eye and logic dictate.
After a very long and straight 404-yard, par 4 opener, players encounter the beach-hugging, dogleg-right second, a 596-yard par-5. The hole sweeps off a tall dune to the fairway guarded along the left by an ancient three-foot-high stone wall and on the right for several hundred yards by gnarly seagrass on terrain that pitches and rolls atop waves of sand. Views from this hole seem to take in Ireland’s entire southwest coast and its coastal mountains.
The 194-yard, par 3 third hole hugs the same beach and contains the ruins of a Norman castle tower – likely built in the 13th century – perched on the cliff behind its green. The tower features a gothic-arch doorway and a “murdering hole” through which boiling oil and huge rocks were dumped on unwanted invaders. In the near distance across an ocean inlet are the ruins of another castle that dates to the 12th century.
From here players also see the Dingle Peninsula and the tip of Mt. Brandon, named after the great navigator, St. Brendan, who was born in 484 A.D. in the vicinity of Barrow. His name has appeared in ocean maps down through the centuries; many believe he discovered America before Columbus.
The sixth, seventh and eighth holes (a pair of mid-length two-shotters sandwiching a 157-yard par 3 that is collectively called “Palmer’s Loop”) offer further intersections of history and exhilarating golf. On this stretch are found the ruins of a 16th century castle gun tower built to protect what was then English land against a marauding Spanish Armada.
Below the seventh tees players will observe the remains of a dock built by wine and brandy smugglers who would ship their goods in from Spain under the cover of darkness.
Back nine a test for all skills
Tralee Golf Club has a split personality – the gentler (but still wonderful) outward-nine morphs into an inward half that ranks among the most demanding collections of golf holes anywhere. Palmer hit the bullseye when he remarked, “I designed the first nine, but surely God designed the back nine.”
After passing in front of the clubhouse and surviving the 474-yard par 4 10th, the golfer then disappears into another world, one of extraordinarily wild and massive dunes. Desperately daring carries are the order of the day through the next seven holes; they are not for the weak of heart nor players not supremely confident in their golf game and abilities.
On the 595-yard, par 5 11th a precise drive to the base of a sharp rise leaves a blind second that must avoid a low stone wall that juts diagonally in toward the fairway from the right. The hardest hole at Tralee is the 461-yard, par 4 12th. It looks like something off one of those fantasy calendars, where artists dream up impossible golf holes.
Here the tee shot is downhill to a narrow landing area flanked by bracken’ a steep fall-away swallows shots aimed too far left. Excepting the tee shot here, the long approach over a valley to an elevated and plateaued green with a nasty back-to-front slope is the hardest shot on the course.
If there’s another signature hole at Tralee it’s the 159-yard, par 3 13th, which is played from a heightened tee to a wide but very narrow green backed by a steep hill covered in thick bracken. The tee shot must carry Brock’s Hollow, a deep chasm whose floor must be at least four stories below the putting surface.
One of the best short par 4s on the planet is Tralee’s dogleg-left, 300-yard 15th, which requires a prudent club choice for positioning off the tee to a left-bending but level fairway. From there, a short-iron must be threaded inside a narrow, dune-defined chute to an elevated green ringed by heather, bracken and more dunes. It is a terrific hole.
The 199-yard 16th, aptly named “Shipwreck,” is the last of Tralee’s sumptuous one-shotters. It is played from an elevated tee down to a green nestling in the dunes with the sea along the right, a crater in front and dunes left and back.
The clubhouse provides commanding views of the course, with the towering Slieve Mish (Sliabh Mis in Gaelic) Mountains as a backdrop and vistas of the Atlantic Ocean. The vistas of Fenit Island and the Kerry Coast out the dining room windows in the clubhouse are priceless, as is – quite frankly – the entire experience at this wonderful place.
Tralee Golf Club is not a super-difficult course and, on many holes, it’s possible to spray the ball and still score well. Other holes are more punitive, but no golf trip to Ireland would be complete without a round at Palmer’s Irish masterpiece.